The amount of land in the Okanagan Valley dedicated to growing apples dropped by 35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 — a shift that led to substantial changes in the industry, with broad repercussions for processing and distribution, and inspired two Okanagan College School of Business professors, Lee Cartier and Svan Lembke, to examine the situation and the new opportunities it has given rise to.
Their work looked in particular at the links among “clusters” — the interconnected businesses, suppliers and other organizations in a geographic area that are all involved in the same industry. Cartier and Lembke found that focusing on common interests and encouraging groups in the cluster to share knowledge benefits everyone involved. At a cluster-wide workshop, the researchers also revealed opportunities to improve that had been missed and recommended adopting cluster-wide quality standards, developing new types of apples, improving production technologies and doing better marketing.
Two students participated in the project. One analyzed apple packing and sales data and did a trend analysis of it. The other summarized data from 17 in-depth interview, summarizing what she had learned from them. Working on this research project provided the students with a new understanding of how companies use research to inform their business practices.
The researchers’ recommendations on the best ways to exploit the collective power of the Okanagan apple cluster were discussed during a stakeholder workshop. The research showed the local cooperative organization, BC Tree Fruits (the largest employer in the cluster), was already enabling smaller firms to share equipment, get field service advice and pool their marketing and sales costs. However, the cooperative overall remained a minor player compared to some of the operations in Washington just the other side of the border and had not been aggressive in positioning products or trying new marketing approaches. After the workshop and armed with the research, the cooperative and other industry stakeholders created a list of actions to improve the performance of the conventional apple industry in the Okanagan.